CHARLOTTETOWN – When the Charlottetown folks involved with SpacingAtlantic got together late last year, we decided to engage in some good old fashioned brain-storming to get the creative juices flowing. What transpired was a wonderful, engaging session full of optimism and pride in the city most of us called home. At the end of our two hour session, it was clear to many of us that if Charlottetown was going to change, a new climate of openness and transparency would have to emerge.
There are two keys to an open and transparent democracy — information and accountability. One of the greatest criticisms of our democratically elected government is the premise that we can only hold them accountable once every four years. The inability to sway the direction of political policy, without the benefit of money, either promised or proven, has disenfranchised the younger electorate. Without accountability nobody can fail, but, more importantly, nobody can succeed. Building accountability is essential, but letting governments hold themselves accountable is a recipe for disaster.
In order to hold elected officials accountable, we have to know what they are doing, and whom they are doing it with. If politics are conducted in the back rooms of historic restaurants, in hushed whispers, or in the case of PEI, in clandestine meetings in Victoria Park, the perception continues that politicians are above, or perhaps better positioned, below the law. The problem extends beyond simple political negotiations or funding scandals. The root of the issue is access to information, sans the redacted documents so common to the Access to Information Act. Enter the open data movement. (Yes, I linked to Wikipedia — get over it!)
MySociety.org is the UK’s answer to political accountability. With projects tracking politician voting records and government spending, MySociety has become the defacto standard for political accountability tools. However, my personal favourite is the direct feedback loop offered by FixMyStreet.com. FixMyStreet allows citizens to document street repairs including potholes, damaged civic property, malfunctioning lights or even uncollected refuse. Leveraging Google Maps, UK Ordnance Survey Data and a little open source magic, FixMyStreet lets citizens log complaints, email them to the appropriate department, and then track that issue through to resolution. Want to log issues while on the go? There’s an app for that.
While our friends across the pond are often more progressive and open than we are here in Canada, the idea of a tool to engage and empower citizens to demand services from their cities intrigued the folks over at VisibleGovernment.ca, “a Canadian non-profit that promotes online tools for government transparency”, and FixMyStreet.ca was born. Mimicking the tools available in the UK, FixMyStreet.ca gives the same functionality and opportunities for engagement as its ‘.com’ cousin, with a catch. While the Brits gave open access to the survey data for this project, not to mention some much deserved funding, Canadians are reliant on regional representatives to contact local governments for mapping information and the email addresses of the associated elected and appointed officials.
FixMyStreet currently covers only 8 municipalities but, thanks to Charlottetown city councilor, Rob Lantz, the Island communities of Charlottetown, Stratford, Cornwall, and Summerside are all represented. Charlottetown residents have already begun to log incidents, automatically notifying our city councilors of our observations. While this may not qualify as a true open and accountable government, (for a glimpse of the future check out the city of San Francisco and DataSF.org), it is a step in the right direction. Citizens are engaged, politicians will be held accountable, and maybe, just maybe, a new climate of open, transparent and accountable government is on the horizon for Canadians.
photo by Martin Cathrae